Rules Of Golf: 5 Ways To Use The Rules Of Golf To Your Advantage

Why is a scratch golfer better than a high handicapper? There are several reasons – better swing, more practice, and strong course management to name a few.

Understanding the rules of golf is often overlooked but is a huge advantage to experienced and inexperienced players alike.

The USGA (United States Golf Association) and the R&A (Royal & Ancient) are the governing bodies that manage the rules of golf.

In recent years they have worked to simplify the rules of golf, but most players still find them complicated. Understanding them will give you an advantage over your competitors.

Let’s be clear. We aren’t talking about cheating.

You can save strokes on your golf scorecard by understanding your options. How do you take relief from a cart path? What is your best choice when your ball is in a bush?

Below we explore situations that you need to know the next time you play. Understand the rules of golf and use them to make the game that little bit easier.

Image of male golfer taken from the ground up, at the end of his shot.

Rules Of Golf: 5 Ways To Gain An Advantage

#1: Understand Your Options In A penalty Area (Hazard)

Few situations on the golf course offer you more options than when your ball ends up in a penalty area (hazard).

Penalty areas include lakes, rivers, creeks, high grass, or dense woods. For the penalty area rule to apply, it needs to be marked with red or yellow stakes.

In a red penalty area, you have 4 options and in a yellow one, you have 3. Your choice will depend on the situation.

The best option is always to simply play the ball. This is the only one that doesn’t cost you a stroke.

Unfortunately, this won’t always be possible. You can’t play a ball that is submerged underwater or in waist-high grass.

The most penal option in the rules of golf is “stroke and distance”. This means that you go back and replay the shot with a 1-stroke penalty. This should always be your last resort.

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Before taking “stroke and distance” consider your other hazard drop options that come with a penalty, but don’t force you to go back and replay the shot.

Make a smart decision. Use solid course management. One bogey won’t ruin your round, but you want to avoid making a triple bogey or worse!

#2: Just Because You Can Take A free Drop Doesn’t Mean You Should

There are various situations on the golf course where you are allowed to take a “free drop”. In other words, you can move your ball without penalty.

Common examples in the rules of golf include your ball (or your stance) being on a cart path or a sprinkler head.

It is important to remember that you don’t have to take relief. You can play the ball as it lies.

Why wouldn’t you take the “free drop”? The rules of golf require that you take relief at the nearest point, no closer to the hole.

Four male golfers sit in or stand with their golf cart, two of them looking at their scorecard.

Let’s walk through an example where you might decide to decline your free relief.

Your ball rolls next to a cart path and you will have to stand on the asphalt to hit your next shot. Under the rules of golf, you can take a “free drop”.

Before you mark and pick up your ball, make sure you know where the nearest point of relief is located.

Your ball could be in short grass right now, but your nearest point of relief would be in high grass. In this situation, we would recommend you play the ball as it lies.

It is easier to hit a shot while standing on the cart path than it is to make solid contact out of high grass.

#3: Take Casual Water Seriously

Sad to say, but sometimes it rains on the golf course. This can cause the turf to get saturated and you may end up in a puddle of water.

Did you know that the rules of golf consider temporary water (casual water) an abnormal course condition and you get free relief?

Two female golfers smiling at the camera - maybe because they have mastered the rules of golf!

The rules of golf define temporary water as the “accumulation of water on the surface of the ground (such as puddles from rain or irrigation or an overflow from a body of water) that is not in a penalty area”.

If you are playing on a wet golf course, you should always check for temporary water before hitting your next shot.

The rules of golf explain this process. If water comes up from the turf when you apply a “normal” amount of pressure with your foot (near your golf ball), you are allowed to take a free drop.

If you have the chance, always take a free drop from casual/temporary water. A dryer lie is easier to play from and you can clean your ball during the “drop process”.

#4: Unplayable Lies

Rule #19 in the rules of golf covers unplayable lies. This rule highlights your options when you simply can’t hit the ball as it lies.

A grandmother, mother, and daughter sit in a golf cart with their clubs and smile and the camera.

It is important to note that you cannot take an unplayable lie if your ball is in a hazard. In this situation, you must follow the rules of golf for a hazard.

An unplayable lie might be that your ball is in a middle of a bush and you can’t make a swing. Or your ball is buried deep in a sand trap and you don’t think you can hit it.

If you decide to declare an unplayable lie, you have 3 options:

  • Stroke & Distance – you can go back and replay your last shot and add a 1-stroke penalty.
  • Back On The Line Relief – draw a line from the flagstick to your ball and extend the line backward. You can take a drop anywhere on this line (as far back as you want to go) for a 1-stroke penalty.
  • Lateral Relief – you can take a drop (no closer to the hole) within two club-lengths of where your ball currently lies for a 1-stroke penalty.

The best choice will depend on your situation. Always check for “later relief” first, then see if “back on the line” will work. Stroke & distance is the most penal and should be your last resort.

There is one additional choice if your ball is in a sand trap, but it is rarely used.

Two male golfers turn back to smile at the camera, carrying their golf bags.

For a two-stroke penalty, you can take a drop outside of the bunker. Two strokes is a large penalty and this is typically not the correct choice.

Knowing the unplayable rules of golf and choosing the right option could be the difference between saving a bogey and making a triple!

#5: Move Back On The Tee Box

This is an example of a relatively minor rule that could help you improve your par 3 scoring.

All golfers get stuck between clubs on par 3s. It is rarely the perfect yardage for one of your irons. Did you know you can back up a little?

That’s right, the rules of golf say that you can tee your ball up a full two club-lengths behind the tee box. This can really help on a par 3.

The next time you are worried that a 7-iron is a little too much club, simply tee your ball up two club-lengths behind the tee markers and swing away.

In golf, the smallest things can make a difference. Use the rules to shoot lower scores!

A senior and younger golfer fill in their scorecards while smiling.

Up Next: Read About the Strangest Golf Rules!

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Ray has been playing golf for 35+ years, including being part of his High School and College golf teams. While he still enjoys playing in amateur tournaments, Ray now focuses on growing the game of golf through teaching and coaching. He has two sons that both play golf competitively and loves spending time watching them compete. Ray continues to play in local amateur golf events and currently has a +2 handicap.

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